In Puerto Rico,
New Year's Eve is celebrated with fireworks, vibrant music and street dancing.
But Orlando Cepeda felt something eerie in the air long before he heard about
the crash. "It was quiet and sad," he recalled. "The night felt
different. There weren't many people celebrating. No stars were out."
Cepeda, who had revered Clemente since Cepeda was a bowlegged batboy for the
Santurce Cangrejeros team in 1954, was with his wife at a brother's house when
he got the news. Roberto Clemente cannot die, he thought. And he remembered how
Clemente had wanted him to go along on the flight to Nicaragua.
Osvaldo Gil, who
would have accompanied Clemente on the mercy flight had his wife not talked him
out of it, was celebrating with his family when word of the crash reached him.
He remembered something Clemente had uttered only a few days earlier: Nobody
dies the day before. You die the day you're supposed to.
Jos� Pag�n was asleep at his family home in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, when his
father came into his room and told him the news. Pag�n remembered when Clemente
had uncharacteristically fallen asleep on the team plane but had been jolted
awake by a dream in which a plane had crashed and he had been the only one
N500AE disappeared from the radar screen, San Juan's air traffic control tower
activated the emergency accident notification system, a sequence of 20
telephone calls. The second call went to the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Center in
Old San Juan, nine miles west of the airport. One Coast Guard vessel and two
planes went out on the first call, after 10 p.m., but search officers had not
yet plotted the Probability of Detection area, so the rescuers were operating
on guesswork, in the dark, and found nothing.
Not long after
sunrise on New Year's Day, from Isla Verde to Punta Maldonado, the shore was
lined with people who had come to bear witness. By afternoon there was a
traffic jam of pilgrims flocking toward the place where they thought their hero
had fallen. There, on Pi�ones Beach, began the transformation of Roberto
Clemente from man to myth. Although Governor Luis A. Ferr� had declared a
three-day mourning period, many Puerto Ricans refused to believe Clemente was
dead. The vast crowds at the beach waited, as though expecting him to come
walking out of the sea. Vera Clemente and her father-in-law, Don Melchor, were
treated as royalty as they sat on the beach in stoic silence, holding
the Pirates catcher from Panama who adored Clemente like an older brother,
stripped down to his swimming suit and went out with a group of volunteer
divers to the underwater caverns of the coral reef 100 yards offshore, a likely
place for a body to be snagged.
The Coast Guard
and Navy search party included three helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, two
smaller rescue vessels and the cutter Sagebrush, a 180-foot buoy tender. Their
effort was slowed by four- to six-foot swells, but the rescue team still
recovered seat cushions from the DC-7, as well as life vests, a deflated raft,
papers, the nose wheel and strut, two other wheels, and the wallet of Angel
Lozano, a member of the earthquake relief effort who had been riding in the
cabin with Clemente.
The next day,
Jan. 2, Vera Clemente asked the San Juan Coast Guard commander, Capt. Vincent
Bogucki, to come to her house in R�o Piedras. She wanted to know why he wasn't
doing more. He talked about the possibility of getting another plane but did
not feel he could tell her the cold truth: He and his men had already reached
the grim conclusion that there was no one to rescue and probably not much in
the way of human remains to recover. Why? "The sharks," one of
Bogucki's officers, Lt. John Parker, later explained. "They are
on Jan. 3, in the choppy waters about a mile and a half off Punta Maldonado,
dragging by the Sagebrush had brought a body to the surface. It was Jerry Hill,
the DC-7's pilot. His autopsy would reveal the overwhelming corporal trauma
that the plane's occupants experienced when it hit the water, much like
crashing into a brick wall at 200 mph. Hill had multiple fractures of the head,
face, ribs, sternum and tailbone; a broken spinal column and left leg; complete
amputation of the right leg; cavities in the stomach and diaphragm; a ruptured
aorta and bladder.
Early the next
morning a chartered jet left Pittsburgh carrying more than 60 members of the
Pirates family, as well as baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and players'
association officials Marvin Miller and Richard Moss, to a memorial service for
Clemente in Puerto Rico. At the San Juan airport the delegation filed into two
buses for the short ride to the central plaza in Carolina and the memorial mass
led by Archbishop Luis Aponte Mart�nez at the San Fernando Catholic church.
Crowds lined the streets and filled the plaza, much as they had eight years
earlier when Roberto and Vera had been married in this same stone chapel.